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BOOK REVIEW: Better With Books

July 12, 2019

Thanks to Laken Brooks, a 2019 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

Melissa Hart’s Better With Books is a crash-course in diverse young adult literature. The book suggests preteen and teen reading lists in the following categories: adoption and foster care, body image, immigration, learning challenges, LGBTQ+ youth, mental health, environmentalism, physical disability, poverty and homelessness, race and ethnicity, and spirituality. Hart debuts Better With Books in a time of increasing sociopolitical tension and growing diversity; however, she effectively references contemporary issues like immigration policies to argue that reading - now more than ever - is a vital tool to grow a new generation of empathetic and civic-minded people.

Hart relies on breadth rather than depth to introduce her audience to as many books about as many marginalized identities and experiences as possible. This scope succeeds because Hart writes to a friendly audience of fellow educators and caregivers. From the foreword written by Sharon M. Draper, a National Teacher of the Year recipient, to her own introductory comments on social issues in the classroom, Hart establishes this book as a necessary reference for any teacher. Therefore, she spends little time making the case that books do actually promote empathy in young readers. After all, her intended audience of educators supposedly agree that diverse representation in literature is a foundation for civic values. Hart does argue, though, that diverse literature has transformational, measurable change on individual students.

While Hart’s book operates as a guide of suggested reading lists and book summaries, the most fulfilling sections are the chapter introductions. She frames every chapter with stories about how one book has changed a child’s life. Hart deftly expands the lens in each chapter from an individual -- an immigrant, the mother of a transgender daughter, and Hart’s own child -- to a larger population. For example, in Chapter 1, Hart describes Lyda, a preteen who lived in foster care. After reading Steve Pemberton’s memoir A Chance in the World, something shifts in Lyda’s life. Now a college honors student, Lyda says, “literature can help … It pushes you to feel for characters and makes you want to do something about the issues they’re facing” (3). Hart then zooms from Lyda to the following: “At any given time, 438,000 US kids live in foster care” (3). Upon closer investigation, a reader may recognize rhetorical flaws in these large jumps from individual students to entire populations. While no one student’s experience can represent a marginalized group, Hart does effectively hook readers by demonstrating how books have changed one person’s life. The not-too-subtle suggestion, then, is that a book can also change numerous more lives. As per the back cover, “Through the power of reading, kids can find comfort and perspective,” but adults should curate these books to “find a way into meaningful conversations with their tweens and teens.”

Hart does not necessarily imply that all students will engage with books in the same way, but she does use literacy as the thread through which she invites readers to imagine a better future. After citing the 438,000 children in foster care, Hart ends her introduction by returning to Lyda being adopted. She describes a photo in which Lyda poses with her parents at a baseball game: “In the photo, they look joyful … intimate. They look like a family” (9). On the next page, the reader sees a stock list of book summaries and suggestions. While the transition to the reading list may seem abrupt, this tension highlights Hart’s intention. She pushes the reader to make the connection back to their own classroom, encouraging educators to fill in the gap between Lyda’s story and their students. While teachers cannot possibly ensure that every child is adopted or has a happy ending, Hart emphasizes the readers’ responsibility to help other children feel acknowledged and validated by reading books about people like themselves.

While Hart thoughtfully and soulfully connects individual people to life-changing texts, her text could benefit from precision. For example, Hart lists preteen and teenage options without describing how she is labeling the texts as such: reading level, maturity of content, states curriculum guides, or other metrics? Additionally, Hart could preface her introduction with a note on how she avoided books that tokenize diverse groups. For example, in the section on physical disability, Hart could have clearly noted which books were actually designed for readers with disabilities: books with multimodal components and Braille translations. Furthermore, a brief conclusion would provide more cohesion to the text and a final call to action for the reader.

Better With Books is much needed as a down-to-earth reading guide that connects educators and parents with books about diversity. Hart writes with an easy-to-navigate format, an accessible tone, and a clear conscious.

Hart, Melissa. Better With Books. Sasquatch Books, 2019, Print.

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Dear Reader

June 28, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Letters often hold interest for me as a researcher and reader. They demonstrate humanity in ways that other writing cannot. People allow themselves a level of intimacy on paper that is not allowed in other areas of life. I love to write letters and I do lament that they are not as popular now as they once were. This is one of the reasons that I became interested in a collection of letters titled Velocity of Being, Letters to a Young Reader, edited by Maria Popova and Claudia Bedrick. In it, the editors have compiled letters from many famous and successful individuals, scientists, artists, musicians, and authors. One interesting aspect of this book is that the letters are all written to an unknown reader, but yet some of the letters are still startling intimate. These letters, written by successful and interesting individuals, explain how or why books have helped them in life. They all encourage us to read, but the reasons for doing so vary from person to person, and experience to experience. There are so many letters worth reading, but I have space share only a handful on today’s blog. I invite you to peek into the book yourself to better understand what your favorite public figure thinks of reading.

From Ann Patchett (page 242)

“[N]othing that matters in life should be taken for granted, so if you love to read, here’s how you can ensure that the generation after you and the generation after them will keep at it: all you have to do is read books. Sometimes you should read them in public places. At least some of the time read books that are printed on paper and hold them up so people can see what you’re doing. When they say, ‘Is that book any good?’ stop reading for a minute and answer them. The wonder of books is that they are worlds we enter into alone, and yet at the same time they can connect us to other people.”


From James Gleick (page 248)

“[S]omehow you do learn to read. Then, when you open a book, you scarcely see the letters or even the words. They vanish, an invisible blur across the printed page, while the information they encode pours into your mind as if through a fire hose. Look. Listen. Moonlight shining in the window; a mysterious smile glimpsed in a mirror; a muffled cry from a distant room; the squelch of wet shoes on the tile. Sights and sounds rise from the page and mingle with your experience and stir your memories. You fill in the empty spaces. There is no reading without imagination.”

From Anne Lamont (page 254)

“Books are paper ships, to all worlds, to ancient Egypt, outer space, eternity, into the childhood of your favorite musician, and – the most precious stunning journey of all – into your own heart, your own family, your own history and future and body.”

From Elizabeth Alexander (page 256)

“In the 1920s she [Alexander’s grandmother] wrote to a university in Denmark: I am what is known as an American Negro, and I imagine you have never known one. Will you invite me to come and study at your school? This was one of my favorite of her stories. Why Denmark, I would ask her, entranced by her tales of smorgasbord, the puzzle ring she brought back from a suitor that one day became mine, and the sari she began to wear after being mistaken for Indian. Because when I was a teenager I read about the statue of the little mermaid being built, in Copenhagen harbor, and I wanted to see it for myself.”

Helen Fagin (page 58)

“At twenty-one, I was forced into Poland’s WWII ghetto, where being caught reading anything forbidden by the Nazis meant, at best, hard labor; at worst, death./ There I conducted a clandestine school offering Jewish children a chance at the essential education denied them by their captors. But I soon came to feel that teaching these sensitive young souls Latin and mathematics was cheating them of something far more essential – what they needed wasn’t dry information but hope, the kind that comes from being transported into a dream-world of possibility…./ A knock at the door shattered our dream-world. As the class silently exited, a pale green-eyed girl turned to me with a tearful smile: ‘Thank you so very much for this journey into another world.’… / Of the twenty-two pupils in my secret school, only four survived the Holocaust./ The pale green-eyed girl was one of them. … / There are times when dreams sustain us more than facts. To read a book and surrender to a story is to keep our very humanity alive.”

Alan Lightman (page 66)

“Keep in mind that information is not the same thing as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means. To do that, you will need to turn off your neurochip from time to time. It is valuable to connect to the world, and it is also valuable to disconnect and listen to your own mind think.”

There are many other inspirational letters in this interesting volume. If you get the chance, take a peek in this book (as well as many others).

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Traces of Bergson

June 21, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Read Lalucq’s full poem from Fortino Sámano here: https://poets.org/poem/fortino-samano

Bergson’s Creative Evolution: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/26163/26163-h/26163-h.htm

For our upcoming Quarterly Discussion, we will discuss a selection from Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. I had such a difficult time narrowing down this reading because there are so many wonderful avenues to take. I find his ideas of multiplicity to be very much in our rhetoric today. Since these concepts challenge the reader, today, I wanted to apply them to a contemporary poem which may (or may not) illustrate some of his ideas. Below, I focus on a single poem from Fortino Sámano by Virginie Lalucq which demonstrates, at least to me, the way that perspective alters a thing. This concept aligns with Bergson’s discussions of duration and reality.

I really enjoy how Virginie Lalucq plays with Bergson’s ideas of being and time. In Lalucq’s poetic series on Fortino Sámano, the narrator assumes the persona of Sámano on the day of his execution. Using nothing more than the last surviving photo, she begins a narration of his final thoughts. The poems, however, do not contain his voice any more than they contain the poet’s. Rather, they demonstrate an interplay between reality and perception, vital ideas in Bergson’s theories. In Chapter IV of Creative Evolution, Bergson addresses duration and perception. He suggests that the mind does not invent reality, but reconstructs a portion of it. In fact, reality happens simultaneous to a single perception of reality. This gives rise to the idea of multiplicity. Bergson writes,

“Matter or mind, reality has appeared to us as a perpetual becoming. It makes itself or it unmakes itself, but it is never something made. Such is the intuition that we have of mind when we draw aside the veil which is interposed between our consciousness and ourselves. This, also, is what our intellect and senses themselves would show us of matter, if they could obtain a direct and disinterested idea of it. But, preoccupied before everything with the necessities of action, the intellect, like the senses, is limited to taking, at intervals, views that are instantaneous and by that very fact immobile of the becoming of matter. Consciousness, being in its turn formed on the intellect, sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making. Thus, we pluck out of duration those moments that interest us, and that we have gathered along its course. These alone we retain. And we are right in so doing, while action only is in question. But when, in speculating on the nature of the real, we go on regarding it as our practical interest requires us to regard it, we become unable to perceive the true evolution, the radical becoming. Of becoming we perceive only states, of duration only instants, and even when we speak of duration and of becoming, it is of another thing that we are thinking. Such is the most striking of the two illusions we wish to examine. It consists in supposing that we can think the unstable by means of the stable, the moving by means of the immobile.” (273)

In her poetry, Virginie Lalucq plays with this idea. The narrator wonders about Sámano and asks, “How can he be absolutely in motion and/ absolutely motionless at the same time?” In other words, why does the photograph appear to be a single, instantaneous image, but in reality is a container for many narratives. The viewer perpetually makes and unmakes the image, adding details, questioning details, and then changing the narrative again. This reflects Bergson’s idea that we perceive only states of becoming, but not becoming in its entirety. This is our attempt to make something concrete out of something much too fluid which in this case is, ironically, a photograph.

Furthermore, the narrator addresses the dilemma of an absolute. The image has become shaded, “snowy,” distorted or unclear. The opacity heightens the enigmatic ending which reads: “From which the snowy/ image: each thing in its place is absolutely in/ motion is absolutely at rest.” The line break indicates a potential definition for image: “each thing in its place is absolutely in.” Generally speaking, the voice indicates that an image contains everything, perhaps even the motion. However, they also note that the motion is at rest, which reiterates the question from the beginning: how can he be simultaneously in motion and motionless? The poem’s structure literally reflects this question by placing four lines above and four lines below the central word: “absolutely?” This word becomes its own line because it is the key to the poem. That it is in the form of a question demonstrates its inability to be pinned down or defined.

This poem is about both becoming and duration. This poem demonstrates multiplicity because without multiplicity the reader (and narrator) would not be able to embody Sámano, to recreate his life from images, to wonder about the details in the photo’s background. In short, the reader moves Sámano because of the mind’s ability to think in terms of multiple realities. Only through the dense stream of reality can one body understand the “traces” left by motionless bodies. I think this poem directly expresses the confusion that one feels in trying to assemble reality, or, in Bergson’s terms, in trying to come to terms with the way that consciousness constructs our duration. It indicates that consciousness “sees clearly of the inner life what is already made, and only feels confusedly the making.”

I wonder about the idea of duration and how it plays into our knowledge base, or our constructed world. I want to see more examples of the “radical becoming.” For this reason, and many others, I am excited to discuss Bergson’s ideas in our upcoming Quarterly Discussion. If you would like to join, email asimon@hmu.edu for more information.

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The Misfit's Wickedness

May 24, 2019

Thanks to James Keller, HMU student, for today's post.

Borrowing from Bradbury, Great Books Chicago 2019 was titled: Something Wicked This Way Comes. Taken as a statement rather than a title, it is a somewhat comforting thought—at least initially. If the wicked thing is coming, it is something outside and not of ourselves. It is something foreign to humanity, perhaps a distortion of humanity, but not endemic to humanity. But comfort turns cold when one asks, from where does this wicked thing come? From where does wickedness itself come? How is it that otherwise good people sometimes perform horrifying acts of violence? How is it that people have at times submitted themselves to great oppression, and worse, that they have become complicit in aiding the oppression of others? Lingering in the back of the mind is dread, the fear that wickedness is not something foreign after all, but something to which any one of us might be prone under the right—or rather, wrong—circumstances. Whence wickedness?

Among the readings at Great Books Chicago 2019 was Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In that short story, a murderer and thief who has adopted the name, The Misfit, explains the source of his own wickedness. The cause of his criminality is rooted in his doubts regarding the resurrecting power of Jesus. If Jesus did indeed do as he claimed to have done, The Misfit asserts, then one has no choice but to follow him, but “if He didn’t, then it’s nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can—by killing somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness” (71-72). He goes on to say that he wishes he could be certain whether or not Jesus raised the dead, because, if he had certain knowledge of the resurrection, he would not be like he is. But, the reader asks, why should religious doubt lead The Misfit to the mistreatment of his fellow human beings?

The search for an answer to this question involves other related questions: Why these pleasures? If one said that without a resurrection, one might as well devote himself to the pleasures of the moment, it does not follow that those must entail violence. Pleasure comes in many forms: food, sex, alcohol, art, fine conversation—perhaps about great books—sports... and so on. Why, then, does The Misfit focus on the pleasure to be derived from violence? And then, If there is no pleasure but meanness, why does he say about killing the grandmother, “It’s no real pleasure in life”? (73). By studying these questions, we may understand how The Misfit’s religious doubt is the root of his wickedness.

The limited pleasures of The Misfit grow out of a unique form of despair. For some, moral despair is induced by the belief that one is unable to improve, due to a natural badness or weakness of character. Because they find it unthinkable that they could morally improve themselves, they no longer make the attempt. This is just who I am. But this is not the source of despair in The Misfit. In his case, he cannot fathom why he ought to be punished. He relates the story of being imprisoned, despite being unable to remember the original crime. He is told that he killed his father, but he does not believe this to be true, claiming that his father died of the flu some time ago (69). An ambivalence marks his speech regarding his punishment. On the one hand, he suggests that he was rightly punished: “They had the papers on me” (69). But on the other, he expresses mistrust in the system that punished him, saying that no one ever showed him those papers and that from now on, he makes sure to keep a copy of all papers, with signatures: “Then you’ll know what you done and you can hold up the crime to the punishment and see they do match and in the end you’ll have something to prove you ain’t been treated right” (71). Indeed, he calls himself “The Misfit,” not because he feels no sense of belonging, but because he knows of no crime he committed that merited the punishment he received (71). Moreover, he expresses indignation that punishment is dispensed arbitrarily, with one being “punished a heap,” while another is not “punished at all” (71).

The fact that The Misfit is punished for an unknown crime is the motivation for his malevolent behavior—a case of “Let the crime fit the punishment.” His is a despair that grows out of his perception that the world is fundamentally unjust. If one is going to be punished, despite having never performed a crime—at least that he can remember—then he might as well be a criminal. He might as well do something worth punishing. His criminality is a twisted attempt to restore justice to the world by making himself worthy of his punishment.

But, if The Misfit’s criminality is an expression of his despair, then it can bring him no joy. This is one reason killing the grandmother and her family brings no pleasure. It is true that he sees something good in her before killing her, and this seems to produce a sorrow in him over killing her. He seems regretful when he says: “She would have been a good woman if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life” (73). But the statement, “It’s no real pleasure in life” is broader than the regret of the single action. He expresses the lack of pleasure in the violence altogether, which supports the notion that his violence is an expression of his despair.

The Misfit’s despair and his complaint against the system can be read as a complaint against the doctrine of original sin. If one is born into the world worthy of punishment for the crimes of his forebears, crimes of which one has no memory, one response to that might be to be worthy of the promised punishment. The Misfit likens his punishment to that of Jesus, with the only exception being that “they” had no papers on Jesus (71). Both punishments appear to him to be unjust. Yet, in theory, Jesus was able to ultimately overcome death, i.e. reverse his punishment, while The Misfit cannot do so himself, except through belief in Jesus’ power to raise the dead. Through belief in the resurrection, The Misfit would be able to escape the punishment of death which he inherited. But, because he lacks certainty, he is left with the notion that he will be punished for crimes unknown to him, to a degree he cannot imagine having merited.

For The Misfit, then, the root of his wickedness is his religious doubt, the uncertainty that he merits death as a punishment and the uncertainty that he can be delivered from that death by Jesus. The belief that he will be punished, whether he is wicked or not, inspires him to pursue the pleasure to be found in violence. But, being motivated by despair, that violence cannot be an object of enjoyment, only an expression of rage against his perception that the world is unjust.

It will be obvious to the reader that the source of The Misfit’s wickedness is not the source of all human wickedness. The other readings at Great Books Chicago furnished other—perhaps “answers” is too strong a word—avenues for considering the origin of wickedness. They furnished us with good material for discussion. And, if it is a troubling notion that humans are capable of so much evil, some comfort is found in discussing the matter with others, looking together for the roots of wickedness within ourselves that they may be uprooted and never bear fruit.

I wish to express my gratitude to the organizers, speakers, discussion leaders, and fellow readers of Great Books Chicago 2019 and to Harrison Middleton University.

Work Cited

O’Connor, Flannery. “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” Vital Ideas: Crime. Ed. Theresa Starkey. Great Books Foundation. 2011, pp. 53-73.

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